In 1997 a relatively little-known film came out by Australian first-time director Andrew Niccol. It was titled Gattaca. The idea behind its was as simple as it was brilliant – in a future where most of humanity is genetically-engineered, the now “naturally” born minority are pushed to the sidelines of society – the movie even terms them “invalids” (pronounced “in-VALIDS”).
While it had the tendency to be a bit preachy at times, it more than made up for it with the sympathetic portrayal of an “invalid” protagonist who refuses to play by the rules society had forced upon him – he aspires to be an astronaut, of all things. Towards that end he appropriates the identity of a “valid” who had, in reality, been paralyzed from the waist down, and in return co-habits with him and keeps his bill paid and tabs covered.
The interplay between the two (Ethan Hawke and Jude Law) as well as the indomitable spirit shown by the former in his refusal to back down is what makes this movie work so well. There are also many little touches of brilliance thought the script – Hawke’s character is so used to obsessively cleaning up after himself (the only way to ensure he won’t leave behind traces of his “invalid” DNA) and placing instead counterfeit DNA provided by Law, that he scrubs himself clean even when there is no need for it. Or when a twelve-fingered pianist takes applause for his performance, Hawke’s date asks for his opinion:
“Twelve fingers or ten, it’s all in how you play,” he tells her.
She looks at him quizzically: “this piece can only be played with twelve fingers.”
In an era of stupid and infantile science fiction movies that are calculated to achieve the highest grossing outcome using special effects, often pointless action scenes, and the lowest common denominator (i.e. Michael Bay’s body of work). Gattaca stands as a rarity – a science fiction film that makes you think as well as feel for its characters.
Niccol’s next work was even more well-received, and rightfully so – 1998’s The Truman Show is still remembered as a science-fiction classic (at least by people who understand SF is about ideas, not spaceships and rayguns) while he did not direct “Truman” he did script it, and the theme of one man against the system is again prevalent throughout the film.
Unfortunately, this marked the peak of Niccol’s career – his next two films were not nearly so well regarded: 2002’s S1m0ne missed most of its marks and is forgettable fare, and while 2005’s Lord of War is sadly underrated, it also has pacing issues, and the preachy tone previously felt in Gattaca now almost ruins the movie, which is essentially a “message film”.
And now apparently Niccol had reached his bottom. 2011’s In Time, his last original picture, which attempted a return to the approach that made Gattaca work, has what is a basically good idea for a short story stretched out over two long hours, and a tone that makes Lord of War seem like an infomercial by comparison. The film was given the ultimate backhanded insult by noted SF author Harlan Ellison. Ellison, who is infamous for taking filmmakers to court for allegedly plagiarizing his works, had sued Niccol as well, claiming In Time was based on his classic story Repent, Harlequin, Said the Tictoc Man (yes, that’s the story’s actual title). Upon seeing the film, however, Ellison dropped the suit, apparently not wishing his name attached to a film of such low quality.
That’s a career plunge that would have impressed even the late Orson Welles, but the worst was yet to come: last year’s debacle, The Host, based on Twilight’s authoress Stephanie Meyer’s first entry into science fiction, is howlingly awful. It doesn’t even have the decency of being laughably bad like the Twilight films. The barely-existent plot, a variation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, has an alien parasite called Wanderer being forcibly implanted in the neck of a teenage girl called Melanie in an already-conquered and taken-over Earth. Wanderer, (“Wanda” to her glowing brain tumor\jellyfish friends) is surprised to discover Melanie’s consciousness somehow survives the procedure, and is even more astonished by the fact that Melanie doesn’t want her body taken over by aliens for some reason.
This is not a good place to start, but I’ve seen stories build themselves up from worse beginnings. Unfortunately, The Host is not one of them. The film goes from bad to worse, as Wanda\Melanie run away together back to a group of surviving humans, who at first view her as a threat and try to kill her, but then immediately and inexplicably come around to to utterly love and trust her. If that isn’t stupid enough, majority of the next interminable two hours are taken over by a love quadrangle – yes, just the thing to liven up the fact that the Earth’s population is hunted to almost to extinction – with “Wanda” enamored with Indistinguishable Hunk #1 while Melanie, reduced to an unintentionally funny bratty voice in Wanda’s head – maintains her deep true love(tm) to her own Indistinguishable Hunk #2.
And then it gets really bad. A typical line in what passes for dialogue in this movie sounds like this: “I need you to kiss me now. Kiss me like you want to get slapped.”
To add insult to injury the film was marketed as “science fiction for people who hate science fiction”. For “people”, read “women”. Before anyone gets unduly offended, what I mean by that is that this is exactly the classic corporate view of women as beings unable to handle complex ideas and emotions without forced romance to gawk at, much like how men need to stare at mindless action and close-up shots of Megan Fox lookalikes in order to get them to shell out for a ticket. So forced romance between a hunky dude and an infesting brain parasite is indeed just what we get, complete with two scenes of them kissing in the rain.
If I was told ten years ago the man behind The Truman Show would be even partly responsible for this drivel, I’d never have believed it. My advice to Niccol would be to take an immediate long break and give his career choice some serious consideration. Just now, he is rapidly becoming more and more similar to another once-promising filmmaker – M. Night Shyamalan.